A Short History of Birds' Nests Management in the Niah Caves (Sarawak)

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The exploitation of birds' nests in Malaysia has a long history. Trade in birds' nests with China already existed at the start of the 17th century, when Dutch merchants began operating in the Malaysian and Indonesian region (Cranbrook, 1984: 150, Koon and Cranbrook 2002: 64-5). The trade in birds' nests was an important source of profit, which was therefore controlled first by the Sultanate of Brunei, and then by the Brooke administration which issued titles and permits to the different owners and enacted various ordinances to control the collecting of nests. In the early years of the Sarawak State, birds' nests constituted a significant source of revenue for the state, which collected export duties of 10% of the value of the nests (Cranbrook 1984:152).

In Malaysia, mainly two species of swiftlets produce edible nests: Collocalia fuciphaga (producing white nests) and Collocalia maxima (producing black nests). Both species inhabit mainly limestone caves, such as the Niah caves, which are the object of this study. The nests are made out of the saliva and feathers of the swiftlets. Once processed to remove the feathers, the nests are consumed in soups, which are believed by many people (mainly Chinese) to have rejuvenating and cosmetic virtues.

In the main Niah cave, the exploitation of birds' nests began fairly recently, less than 200 years ago (Harrisson and Jamuh 1956; Medway 1958; Koon and Cranbrook 2002: 68). Niah soon became a major center of black nest production, which peaked at 18.500 kg per year in 1931, or 70% of the total production of black nests in the state of Sarawak for that year (Cranbrook 1984: 155). The exploitation of birds' nests in the Niah caves sustains the livelihoods of hundreds of people, and has been one of the backbones of economic development for Niah town. One even talks of "birds' nests tycoons," people who became very rich within a short time, just through birds' nests trade. The fame of the Niah caves owes a lot to this huge production of nests, but also to the archaeological discovery of the oldest human remains in Southeast Asia (Harrisson 1958). In order to protect this unique archaeological site, the caves were made into a national heritage site under the authority of the Sarawak Museum, and later on into a national park under the authority of the National Parks department. Recently, the swiftlets have become protected species.

Before 1980, only two harvests were allowed, in December and June, each of which lasted for 2 months (Medway 1958: 467). Each harvest was followed by 4 months without harvest. (1) Most owners and collectors were Penan, while traders were first Malay, then, later on, local Chinese. The owners either worked in the cave themselves or hired Penan workers who were paid a fixed price per harvest, as well as a share of the harvest (Cranbrook 1984). During harvest time, workers stayed overnight in the cave. Traders established a whole village in an adjacent cave (the so-called "trader cave"), to barter goods for raw nests, or buy nests with money. As many workers contracted debts with traders, they often repaid the debt in kind. In the early 1930s, the state established auctions to secure a better price for the workers and owners (through traders' competition) and to prevent tax evasion (Banks 1937). The state also tried to outlaw the repayment of debt in kind with nests.

At the end of the 1950s, birds' nests collection was a dying business (Medway 1957; 1958). In 1958, only five Penan were still working as professional birds' nests collectors. The price was so low that it was not economical to exploit nests, given the concomitant risk. The bird population was very impressive and was estimated to be about 1.5 million in the 1950s (Medway 1957) and 1.3 million in 1978 (Leh and Hall 1996).

In short, before 1980, the local system of birds' nests management, which involved mainly Penan and some local traders, was still sustainable and well controlled. …